Can you feel the leverage, as we tip into the weekend? I suspect Archimedes first identified the week’s centre of gravity, sometime in the early hours of Friday. We may have lost our hebdomadal equilibrium, but that means our last hours have become a lever whose mechanical advantage we can use to crack open almost anything. Use them wisely!
If you prefer to read these words in your browser, here’s a link to today’s writing—and to some of my other recent work:
🥛 Maybe we’re doing okayish (Today!)
🧑🏽🤝🧑🏼 Death of an Anarchist (4 September)
🚴 Cycling around Britain archive (July, August)
Are you a visual learner?
Then you’ll love my output this week: a pair of three minute videos that foolishly attempt to summarise my 2,200km of cycling this summer.
Stage 1: The Southeast
1,200km of cycling crammed into exactly three minutes. Featuring Dorset, Sussex, Kent, London, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk—and arguably a little too much bugling.
Stage 2: The Southwest
1,000km of ups and downs (mostly ups when it came to cycling and mostly downs when it came to downpours) as I cycle around Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset—the entire southwest coastline of Britain, in fact. Well. Almost the entire southwest coastline...
🐴 I’d love to know what you think of these forays into the video format. I’m far from being a pro, but I have enjoyed filming and editing them. Ponies aside, what would you like to see more of?
Maybe we’re doing okayish
In his book There Is No Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee bemoans the ironically glacial pace of international action on climate change:
We have had decades of warning about climate change. But we have wasted that time through our denial, first of the problem itself and then of the nature of the solution that is required, and through the unspeakably clumsy way in which we inch towards the kind of global agreement that might actually help. In the Anthropocene, we can’t rely on every challenge giving us so much warning. We’d better practise our global governance because we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change on a far shorter timescale.
This was a funny thing to read in the middle of a global pandemic because it made me reflect that, for the most part, humans are actually doing okay this time around.
Yes, nearly a million people have died from Covid-19. That’s awful. Perhaps millions more will die in the months and years to come. That’s also awful.
But the response, which is what Berners-Lee is talking about, has been rapid, global and, most importantly, cooperative. Given the difficulties—or perhaps because of them—there has been a surprising shortage of denial, clumsiness and ‘inching’.
Of course we can all point to individuals who dig sandpits of denial, others to whom clumsiness is a kind of elegance, and still more whose rulers are still dreamily scored with Imperial Inches.
But if we ignore the bombast of our elected politicians… What have we seen?
As individuals, we have all taken part in rapid and compliant social lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. More importantly: we haven’t torn our social fabric in the process. Indeed, research from 28 countries suggests that people may be feeling slightly less lonely now than they were before the pandemic. Well done us.
For all the post-truth opprobrium aimed at the ‘so-called experts’, the response to Covid-19 from the scientific community has been instantly impressive. To take vaccines alone, according to Wikipedia, there are 321 candidates in development, with 39 already going through clinical trials. A process that usually takes years is being compressed into months—despite the difficulties of social distancing in a laboratory. Well done science.
Last year, the number of worldwide deaths from AIDS fell to its lowest level since 1993—and incidence of the disease is at its lowest since the epidemic began. (Wait, you’ll see how this is relevant in a second.) The UN estimates that the total amount of money needed for the global response to an AIDS epidemic that will kill another 600,000 people in 2020 is only £22bn. (Okay, here we go.) By July—i.e. only four months into their response to Covid-19—the UK government (alone) had spent £15bn on PPE (alone) for NHS staff (alone). That gives us some idea of the scale of our response to Covid-19.
Two points arising from these three observations:
The AIDS epidemic is much worse than you think and still horribly underfunded. In the last thirty years, we’ve lost 32,000,000 lives to the disease—that’s the population of Australia and Denmark put together. An even larger number are living with AIDS today.
No matter how shit Covid-19 is right now and no matter how much shitter things get, I don’t think humans should beat themselves up about their response. We can—and we will—do more, but maybe we’re already doing okay.
Finally, none of this undermines Berners-Lee’s point about climate change. Note that he says ‘we might need to respond to something just as intangible as climate change’. Covid-19 is far from being intangible: as I’ve hopefully pointed out, human beings are very good at dealing with imminent threats to life.
As Daniel Gilbert wrote in his article ‘If only gay sex caused global warming’:
Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes. The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get.
Sadly, the brain is nigh-on helpless when faced with the inexorable logic of generational climate change. But perhaps Covid-19 is helping us rewire our Neanderthal instincts, showing us how, when the chips are down, we can do this rapid, global cooperation kind of thing.
And that maybe, perhaps, we’ll do okayish.
Any more for any more?
Adventures with Anxiety! is a computer game by Nicky Case in which you play your own ‘anxiety wolf’. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me rethink my relationship with fear. I’m not sure any other computer game has ever done that. Not even Sensible Soccer.
Talking of anxiety, I’m keeping an eye on the research combining LSD and MDMA for therapeutic purposes—and the development of an LSD ‘off switch’.
Since David Graeber’s untimely death last week, I’ve been heartened to see some of my favourite internet people sharing their fond memories of him and re-sharing their favourite of his iconoclastic articles. The incredible humans at Future Crunch chose Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, first published in 2012 and included in Graeber’s 2015 collection The Utopia of Rules—which publishers are (hopefully) scrambling to reissue because I can’t find a copy online anywhere. RIP.
Adjusting to homelife after six weeks of bikelife hasn’t been easy—why can’t I smell the hedgerows? why aren’t people curious about what I’m doing all the time? why haven’t I eaten six pasties already today?—but it’s not without its compensations. Tending plants, reading books, boiling kettles.
I’m looking forward to another weekend of outdoor instructing with kids from a local school. It’ll be hectic and peaceful in savagely alternating quantities.
May your weekend be as rewarding.
Hello, I’m David Charles and I wrote this newsletter. I publish another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. I’m co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also write for The Bike Project, the Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info.
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